Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When the Czar Knew

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson (Broadway Books, division of Random House Inc., 2011) 448 pages

Before the Russian Revolution when the serfs experienced the terror of Russia's police forces, the people would often exclaim, "If only the Czar knew ..." In Nazi Germany, not only does the Czar (President von Hindenburg) and many of the principals know, including the democratic countries that were soon to be named the Allies and wage a war against the Nazis in WWII, but many were content in the knowledge that Hitler and his men would quash the Communists and other "disruptive" elements in German society. Honorable men and women who opposed the Nazis were quickly silenced and/or destroyed.

William Dodd, Ambassador to Germany in the mid 1930s, was a lonely and largely futile voice in the woods who protested what he saw during his tenure there.

How apt a title for the depiction of this era -"Garden of Beasts". It is a literal translation of the word Tiergarten in central Berlin, an enormous urban park. William Dodd and his family resided along the perimeter of the Tiergarten in the mid 1930s. The title represents the juxtaposition of the beauty and culture of Germany (the image of the cultivated garden) and the horror and monstrosity of the Nazi regime (a menagerie of beasts) with the Dodd family thrust in the midst of it.

William Dodd was asked to serve in Germany in 1933 by Roosevelt in a period where it became increasingly obvious that the country was rearming for war. Jews (and others suspected of hostility towards the Nazis) were being singled out, stripped of their civil rights, beaten in the streets, deprived of their livelihoods, driven out of their professions, and, taken to secret cells to be tortured. Purity laws were being refined and acted upon in some regions. Violence was rampant and despite vociferous disavowals from the German government that these were isolated instances, the violence was spreading.

Germany was on the cusp of tremendous change. Hitler had just been appointed Chancellor. He was seen by some as powerful and charismatic with legitimate grievances against the Jews. Germany had an "image problem" internationally and part of Dodd's responsibility as an Ambassador was controlling the negative impact of this image.

This, initially, was not what most concerned the Americans even when Americans themselves were being beaten as well sometimes just for failing to salute in the Nazi manner in the street. ("Give men a chance to try their schemes." Dodd was told when he protested about the treatment of Jews and Americans in Germany.) The American government was concerned that Dodd do nothing to upset the payment of reparations for the damages of the First World War under the Treaty of Versailles - perceived by some to be excessive and unsustainable. Some fifteen years after the war, the Germans were still expected to pay.

Dodd, a history professor who was once a student in Germany and fluent in the language, had moved to Germany with his wife, son Bill Jr. and daughter Martha. Martha was, shall we say, a ... coquette? Let's use that word rather than a more obvious one. She had relations with a number of Nazi officials. She was not particularly partial to Nazis or their ideology - after all, she also had an intense love affair with Boris Vinogradov, a Communist and diplomatic official representing the newly formed Soviet Union - but initially she was largely indifferent to the violence even that which she had witnessed herself such as the public beating and humiliation of a German woman named Anna Rath (a horrifying incident you made read about here) who was being punished for the unpardonable crime of being engaged to a Jew.

On a more personal level, Martha, at one point, was being urged to throw herself in the path of Hitler as a possible consort by one of her own admirers Ernst Hanfstaengl, nicknamed "Putzi", who was one of Hitler's confidants. She was told, "Hitler needs a woman. Hitler should have an American woman - a lovely woman would change the whole destiny of Europe. Martha, you are the woman!"

The Dodds arriving in Berlin
Martha was "convinced that Hitler was a glamorous and brilliant personality who must have great power and charm.” But she was perhaps not sufficiently enthusiastic to enchant der Fuhrer. The encounter came to nothing.

Dodd, largely liberal, humane and educated, was alarmed by Hitler and his cohorts but disconcertingly anxious to preserve relations between the two countries. When he became aware of these disturbing instances he protested quietly to the appropriate persons. But the casual racism of the diplomatic circles appall. He freely uses the phrase "Jewish problem", citing America's own issue with the "growth" of Jews in powerful positions.

Dodd is not blameless. He spends an inordinate amount of time complaining about bureaucratic waste - for instance the length and cost of telegrams sent by embassy staff rather than being alarmed by more pressing concerns. More disturbing is his concern that the number of Jewish staff at the embassy will distress German officials and his desire to reduce that number. The casual racism of the Dodds often infuriates although is likely very representative of their class and the time.

But, within a year, daughter Martha's own admiration slowly recedes despite her attraction to the handsome, blonde youths of the movement. The Dodds begin to have paranoid sentiments that their home is likely bugged and that they might be being followed and observed. Martha lies in bed dreading the thought and imagining the worst. Politically the winds are shifting ominously with President von Hindenburg's death in 1934 and Hitler's consolidation of absolute power as President.

Eventually Dodd is removed despite (or perhaps because of) his dire warnings. The family does not fare much better in America. Mattie Dodd soon dies after moving back. Bill Jr. ends up working for Federal Express and the senior Bill's health soon falters and he eventually declines. Only Martha appears to land on her feet. Martha's relationship with Boris fizzles when he delays in divorcing his wife and marrying her. Perhaps this is a lucky escape as he as trying to recruit her for the NKVD (precursor of the KGB). But she marries well and lives a long and prosperous life.

If only the fate of the Germans and those persecuted by the Nazis had been as fortunate.

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